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The Bhagavadgita

The setting of the Gita
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The setting of the Gita is symbolic of the battlefield of life, but more importantly, it is symbolic of the battlefield within all of us. Our life is a constant turmoil between positive and negative impulses, between the pleasant and the better, between our likes and dislikes, between the good and the bad. Even though the Gita is the record of a dialogue centuries ago, it is relevant to any age since it addresses fundamental questions that arise in the human heart. Through the vista of epic literature, we are able to hear and see the sacred dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna. Arjuna’s despondency is our despondency. His questions are our questions. As we read the Gita, it is as if we are in direct communion with the great sage embodied in the personality of Krishna.

A synopsis of the last lecture

In our last lecture, we saw Krishna’s immediate response to the despondency of Arjuna on the battlefield. He told him to snap out of it. “This is not the behavior of a great warrior.” If the depression is mild, such words of encouragement have the desired effect. In this case, the problem is deeper since it is existential in nature. So Krishna resorts to the highest teaching he can give, namely the essence of the Upanishadic teaching of the immortality of the Supreme Self. “Life and death are part of the cosmic process, But the Self is indestructible and immortal. It is not slain when the body is slain.”

So Krishna makes a plea from a worldly perspective. “If you abandon your work.What is the effect of this teaching? Even this teaching does not seem to have any effect. And living such a life is worse than death. Therefore. people will forever recount your abandonment. stand up and fight!” This still does not energize Arjuna to go into battle.    . So now begins Krishna’s brilliant discourse and a synthesis of the four yogas.

“The word karma is derived from the Sanskrit kri meaning “to do”. It is good to begin with Vivekananda’s explanation of the meaning of Karma yoga. Technically. In connection to metaphysics. the word also means the effects of actions.” .Karma yoga    Karma yoga is one of the brilliant new contributions of the Bhagavadgita. we have simply to do with the word karma as meaning work. all action is karma. it sometimes means the effects of which our past actions were the causes. But in karma yoga. It is not found in the Upanishads explicitly.

is karma and it leaves its marks on us.” . If what we are now has been the result of our own past actions. that is karma. I am talking to you. we have the power to make ourselves. so we have to know how to act. by knowing how to work. and whatever we wish ourselves to be. that is karma. We breathe. one can obtain the greatest results.” “We are responsible for what we are. You are listening. that is karma. physical or mental. the Gita says that it is doing work with cleverness and as a science. With regard to karma yoga.” “There is such a thing as frittering away our energies.   “Thus we are all doing karma all the time. it certainly follows that whatever we wish to be in the future can be produced by our present actions. Everything we do.

and relinquish all selfish desire. To action alone. no effort is ever lost and no obstacle prevails. you have the right.Krishna begins    “In the path of karma yoga. Fixed in this yoga. abandoning attachment and being even minded in both success and failure. Don’t let the fruits of action be your motive. Even a little practice of this yoga saves one from great fear. do your work. Thoughts of the irresolute are many-branched and endless. Yoga samatvam ucyate . The resolute understanding is single. Evenness of mind is called yoga. but not to the fruits of action.” “Firmly fix the thought on the Supreme Self. Neither should you be attached to inaction.

Thus. the foundation of karma yoga is the yoga of knowledge. in both success and failure.The first steps of karma yoga    The first step in karma yoga is to fix the thought on the realization of the Supreme Self. Is this possible? . Thus. The ideal is to work with an evenness of mind. If we examine our life. or jnana yoga. How can we work if we are not motivated by self-interest? Does this mean we should abandon work? Krishna emphatically says no. The second step is to act but not with a selfish motive. You should not resort to inaction either. the teaching of the Upanishads is made the foundation on which the yoga is built. we find it is full of self-interest.

I find it is not true. he only breaks himself to pieces. I also thought in that way years ago. The energy which ought to have gone out as work is spent as mere feeling. disturb our minds. we waste so much energy. … The man who gives way to anger. It is the calm. or any other passion. shatter our nerves. and the more amount of work we can do. the better for us. and does nothing practical. well-balanced mind that does the greatest amount of work. the better we work.Vivekananda gives a personal view    “I have been asked many times how we can work if we do not have the passion which we generally feel for work. or hatred. forgiving. cannot work.” “The calmer we are. getting more experience. equable. but as I am growing older. When we let loose our feelings. which counts for nothing. The less passion there is.” “It is only when the mind is very calm and collected that the whole of its energy is spent in doing good work.” . and accomplish very little work.

In these verses. Yoga is said to be this skill in action. not by self-interest. or illumined reason.Krishna continues    “Action should be guided by intelligence. is said to be skillful in action.” Yogah karmasu kausalam. . At the same time. One who has joined himself to buddhi. Krishna outlines his theory of work and gives two definitions of yoga. The first is evenness of mind and the second is skill in action. we must not be attached to the fruits of our work. Both of these attitudes have to be combined to gain a proper understanding of this philosophy of work. and works.

Krishna answers: “When all the desires of the mind are put away and the spirit is content in itself. He from whom passion. the sage is said to be of settled intelligence. He who draws away the senses from the objects of sense as a tortoise draws in its limbs into the shell. fear and rage have passed away is called one of settled intelligence.” . his intelligence is said to be firmly set.Arjuna asks for a description of the perfect sage   The very question of Arjuna is an indication that his mind has been engaged and he is slowly coming out of his despondency. He is untroubled in the midst of sorrow and is free from eager desire amid pleasures.

When this is not gratified.” . The senses are impetuous and can carry away the mind by force. one perishes.How does attachment arise?   “The objects of sense turn away when one abstains from feeding on them.” “By thinking about sense objects. From attachment. remains and only disappears when the atman is realized. From confusion. however. attachment to them is formed. From the destruction of intelligence. loss of memory. anger comes. From loss of memory. the destruction of intelligence. arises a desire to possess them. if one is not careful. From anger comes confusion. The taste for them.

peaceful co-existence with fellow human beings. we are confused and issues that have no bearing on the circumstance are brought in only to add further confusion.The psychology of anger     Modern psychoanalysis has revealed that anger is a manifestation of repressed and suppressed desires. our responsibilities. Modern medicine has also established the damage to internal physiology caused by excessive anger. . we forget many things: the purpose of life. In the fit of anger. our goals. and most importantly. In such a confusion.

Psychology and literature   Literature is replete with examples of this one psychological phenomenon: how selfish desire can possess the mind and lead it to annihilation. Morality for its own sake is too weak to stand on its own. This is the fundamental theme of human life. But the “moral choice” must be guided by intelligence. . or illumined reason (buddhi). One must have a larger perspective with which to view things and this perspective is provided by intelligence. the question of “moral choice” in all issues and circumstances.

Krishna continues    “But one who is of disciplined mind. it carries away all understanding just as the wind carries away a ship on the waters. there is no intelligence. What is night for all beings is the time of wakefulness for the sage. When the world is dazzled by the glitter of sense objects. who moves among objects of sense with the senses under control. What is the time of wakefulness for all beings is night for the sage. Similarly. Thus the mind of the sage is asleep to what the world is awake to. . such a one attains purity of spirit. however. how can there be happiness?” “When the mind runs after the roving senses. the sage is focused on understanding reality and touching the very substance of the phenomenon of life. there is no peace. nor is there the power of concentration. For the uncontrolled. Without concentration of mind. free from attachment or aversion. the world is asleep to what the sage is awake to. For the restless mind.” The meaning of the last part is an indication of priorities.

Arjuna intervenes and asks. He is indifferent to them.Some psychoanalytic insight    Krishna says. is ever motionless. “The sage does not hug desires when they arise.” From his spiritual perspective. As waters enter the sea. though ever being filled. Krishna sees desires as part of the psycho-biological process.” . Nor does he agitate the mind to create them. so is the mind of the sage with respect to desires. “If you think the path of understanding (jnana yoga) is better than the path of action (karma yoga). then why do you urge me to fight? I think you have only confused me by this teaching. Tell me for certain which path I should follow.

To Arjuna’s question. Many contemporary thinkers. But one must understand that freedom from work is not gained by abstaining from work. . “One may lead a life of contemplation or a life of action. but continues to brood over sense objects is said to be a hypocrite and only brings misery and delusion to oneself. consider this to be the major contribution of the Bhagavadgita to philosophical thought. lead one to enlightenment.” This verse is Krishna’s brilliant fusion of jnana yoga and karma yoga.The theory of work     Krishna now begins his outline of the theory of work. But he who controls the senses by the mind and engages the organs of action in the path of work is superior.” “One who restrains the organs of action. Both properly done. By mere renunciation of work. Krishna replies. such as Mahatma Gandhi. you do not attain perfection. It is impossible to maintain even one’s life without doing some work.

the cow remains a cow and the stone a stone. but nevertheless. one is tempted to refrain from action altogether. Man steals and man tells lies. it is man that becomes god.” . But this is definitely not the way. and again. Vivekananda writes in his inimitable humorous way.Vivekananda expands   In order to refrain from falling into error. “The cow never tells a lie and the stone never steals.

” “This world is an interdependent world. But learn to work free from attachment. Look at me Arjuna. yet.    “Do thou thy allotted work.” . I continue to work. “for action is better than inaction. so should the learned act. Whatever standard is set by such a one. There is not for me any personal gain from the work I do. If I did not engage in work unwearied. All creatures support each other through mutual co-operation. but without any attachment and with a desire for the welfare of the world. Join your mind to a higher cause that enables the welfare of all. The enlightened person acts in a spirit of yoga and thus sets others to act as well.” Krishna instructs. It is in this way that the great ones of the past have attained perfection through work alone. one must be active.” “Whatever a great person does.” “Just as the ignorant act from attachment to work. people would follow my example and the world will fall into ruin. the world rises to that standard. others follow. Even to maintain physical health.

a worthy cause that enjoins the welfare of all.The main message of the Gita     Often. The classical adage. “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop” more or less summarizes the dangers of such an option. . This is not an option recommended by Krishna. Few people have the capacity for sustained concentration and so. and then to engage the mind and body in work towards that ideal. we are tempted to run away from our difficulties and take up a life of the recluse. of exclusive meditation. most of the people who choose the meditative life waste a lot of time in idleness. The ideal is to join the mind to a wider vision.

” enjoins Krishna. for then. Even though this may not be done perfectly. “Repressing or suppressing desires is not desirable. we see that we must take our own abilities and give them a higher direction. it is better because acting contrary to one’s psychological disposition often leads to fear. . we need not go anywhere. The energies and passions must be given a higher direction as I have indicated in the yoga of work.” Thus. For this. It is our own view that must be adjusted and enlarged. “Do thou thy allotted work. these energies only become subconscious to manifest later in all their fury.” “Better is thought and action consonant with one’s own abilities and aptitudes than that which is not.    This does not mean we must abandon or present work and take up something that has been certified as social service by the world at large.

what is inaction and what is non-action? Even the wise are confused on these points. Learn that by humble reverence.What is action?    “What is action. he is the yogi. by concentration .” “Knowledge as a sacrifice is greater than any material sacrifice since all works without exception culminate in wisdom. by inquiry.” . “He who sees action in inaction and inaction in action. and by service. Such an individual holds his life as an offering. For one whose actions are free from selfish desire. every work culminates in wisdom.” says Krishna. a sacrifice to a higher ideal.

reflective and outwardly. This is the four-fold yoga joining the paths of devotion (bhakti). one is gaining insight and wisdom. . and by service. of knowledge (jnana). good and bad. performing no action. through introspection. by inquiry. So this is true action. of psychic control (raja) and of work (karma). All experiences. but inwardly.   Mere physical action is not action according to Krishna. The process by which this is done is fourfold: by humble reverence. One may be silent. Real action is the process by which we refine wisdom from the crude ore of experience. can be used to distil wisdom. by concentration.

The mind should be fixed on the desire to realize Brahman.The practice of concentration    To practice concentration of mind. What exactly is will? Will is love converted into power. little by little. one must engage the will. let him restrain and bring the mind to the focus of concentration. Whenever the mind wanders. The same mechanism that leads one to a downfall can also be used to raise the level of awareness. “As a lamp in a windless place does not flicker. so also is the mind fixed on the Supreme Self that is not disturbed by selfish desire.” . by means of reason controlled by steadiness and having fixed the mind on the Self. Let the yogi gain tranquility of mind. let him not think of anything else.

the world of duality is transcended by one whose mind is established in tranquility.” . “but it can be done with steady practice.” agrees Krishna.” “Thinking of That. directing one’s whole conscious being to That. making That their whole aim.Arjuna intervenes with a basic question    “This control of mind that you describe is very hard indeed. Even here on earth. with That as the sole object of devotion. Wonderful things can be accomplished through steady practice. they reach that supreme state. It becomes easier if we constantly remind ourselves of the goal to be attained.” says Arjuna. “Yes. It is as difficult as trying to control the storm.

“If you think It can be seen. one can see Krishna’s mind ascending in awareness     His speech begins to reveal that he is now teaching from the level of universal Awareness as taught by the Upanishads. He asks. I am the origin of all. with their thoughts fixed on Me. I am the light in the moon and the sun. From Me the whole creation proceeds. I am the life in all existence. the wise worship Me.As the discourse continues. “I am the taste in the waters.” As Krishna’s mind ascends to a higher level of awareness. then please reveal It to me. Arjuna asks if he too can have such an awareness. I am the fragrance in the earth and the brightness in fire. I am the syllable Om.” . Knowing this.

I will give you the divine eye by which you can see.” In the 11th chapter of the Gita.” . “If a thousand suns were to rise simultaneously in the morning sky. “It cannot be seen by the human eye. the visva rupa. Arjuna is at first frightened. that might resemble the splendor of that vision. The poet writes. or the cosmic form of Krishna is described.The cosmic form    Krishna says.

” . As moths rush swiftly into a blazing fire to perish there. “infinite in form on all sides. I see sons of Dhritarashtra rushing towards destruction. … I have seen what was never seen before and my heart is shaken with fear. I do not see the end. the middle nor the beginning.Arjuna’s song of praise  “I behold Thee. so do these men rush into their own destruction. Please show me your compassionate form.” sings Arjuna. The entire space is pervaded by Thee alone. I see many things.

to be even-minded in pleasure and pain. immobile. The essential thing is to give up selfish desire and be dedicated to the welfare of all beings. In the practice of devotion. to be free from egotism. also attain to a higher level of awareness. and constant.” . This is quite difficult for embodied beings.The compassionate form   Then Krishna said. Real devotion is to not have any ill-will towards any being. beyond thought. with unswerving devotion. it is difficult for the mind to focus on the abstract idea which is beyond manifestation.” “But those who worship Me. through unswerving devotion to the Supreme. meditating on Me. This is the yoga of devotion (bhakti yoga). which is changeless. Others too can. “This universal form is very hard to see and you have seen It. attain the same state of awareness.

a dualistic view will intervene no matter how hard we try to avoid it. Krishna assimilates in a masterly way all dualistic views into the non-dualistic framework. to be even-minded in pain and pleasure. One need not lament about that. As long as one thinks of oneself as an embodied being. to be free from egotism.” This is the essence of devotion. In these verses. .The yoga of devotion   This can be said to be the 2nd main contribution of the Gita to the world’s philosophical thought. The essential thing is “to have no ill-will towards anyone.

In this chapter. restlessness and selfish activity prevail. or simply. Everything in this manifested universe exhibits this three-fold nature. tamoguna is said to increase. he gives a detailed view of the Samkhya philosophy. deludes all embodied beings and gives rise to attachment for negligence. As mentioned earlier. When delusion. one attains Brahman. this philosophy is based on two uncreate principles: purusha and prakriti. indolence. or modes of energy. negligence and inertia prevail.” “When the light of knowledge streams forth in all the gates of the body. When one rises above these three modes. After elaborating on the 24 cosmic principles of the Samkhya. causes illumination.” “The three modes or gunas are the cause of bondage. Those who perceive thus through the eye of wisdom attain to the Supreme.” . Dullness (or tamoguna). Krishna describes. But goodness (sattvaguna) being pure. sattva is said to increase.Duality to plurality       In the 13th chapter of the Gita. and sleep. pure awareness and creative energy. born of ignorance. he gives us his insight into the manifestation of the gunas. When greed. so does ksetrajna illumine the entire field of ksetra. Ksetrajna (the knower of the field) and ksetra (the field). rajas is said to increase. health. and causes attachment for knowledge.” “Passion (rajoguna) springing from craving gives rise to selfish action. Krishna moves from duality to plurality. “As the one sun illumines the world.

” “That work which is done in great strain to gratify one’s selfish desires is said to be the nature of passion. or rajas. is said to be the nature of goodness. without regard to one’s human capacity. is said to be of the nature of dullness or tamas. performed without attachment to fruits.” “That work which is done through ignorance.” .The three-fold nature of things    “There are three kinds of work. or to loss and injury. That work which should be done. or sattva. without regard to consequences.

being free from desire and egotism. “Resigning all your works to Me. with your consciousness fixed in the Self. Mayi sarvani karmani samnyasya dhyatmacetasa nirasir nirmamo bhutva yudhasva vigatajvarah Ye me matam idam nityam anutisthanti manavah sraddhavanto nasuyanto mucyante te’pi karmabhih.The synthesis of the yogas     Krishna makes a final appeal.” . and whoever follows this teaching will also be released from the bondage of work. free from any mental fever. fight. This is my philosophy of life. echoing his earlier message of verses 30 and 31 of the 3rd chapter.

jnana. The human mind has four faculties: thinking. namely thinking. The method for raising each faculty to a higher state is called yoga. karma and raja. willing and restraining. The human brain should not be developed in a one-sided fashion but must be exercised in this four-fold way giving a higher expression to each of its four faculties. Just as thinking can be taken to a higher state as illumined reason. willing. feeling. bhakti. so also feeling. This is his masterly stroke. correspond to the four faculties of the mind. This is his magnificent synthesis of all philosophical thought. feeling. . willing and restraining.” he means the four-fold combination of all these yogas. The four yogas. When Krishna refers to “my philosophy of life.The essence of the Gita     These two verses contain the essence of the Gita. restraining can be taken to higher levels.

This wisdom. “Gone is my delusion. Through your grace. more secret than all secrets. Please reflect on this and do as you choose. being free from desire and egoism. No one can be coerced into goodness. “Resigning all your works to Me (bhakti). I shall carry out your word. delivered from mental fever (raja).” . has been given to you by Me.The secret of secrets     So Krishna says.” Here is the fundamental principle of choice in life. We are given the highest wisdom and now must choose. fight (karma). “Would you like me to repeat anything?” Arjuna replies. with your consciousness fixed in the Self (jnana). “Have you listened carefully Arjuna?” Krishna asks. my doubts have been dispelled.

So profound and valuable is its teaching that it has acquired the status of an Upanishad and it is referred to as the Bhagavadgita Upanishad.The message of the Gita    Thus ends the Bhagavadgita. moral and philosophical traditions in a universal synthesis. As such. it can be said to include all the other Upanishads in it as well as much more. However. encompassing all religious. To re-iterate. the Gita’s contribution to philosophy is its introduction of the four yogas and its assimilation of all philosophies ranging from the plurality of the Samkhya to the non-dualism of the Upanishads. it absorbs into it the yoga of reason (jnana yoga) and the yoga of restraining (raja yoga). .

Stand in the middle of the battle of life and be calm. He himself is the superb example of the teaching put into practice. . The message is given on the battlefield. the very embodiment of the universal teaching he is giving. think clearly and act from the higher standpoint. as it were. not in the solitude of a forest hermitage. or a secluded mountain cave. This is Krishna’s message.The personality of Krishna    What is impressive about the whole piece is the personality of Krishna. He is.

Every moment of his is alive with activity. no superstition. he is there. … Then that heart! … That wonderful mind! That tremendously active life! Krishna preached in the middle of the battlefield. that is the greatest yogi. minister or something else. No cobwebs in that brain. “He who in the midst of intense activity finds himself in the greatest calmness and in the greatest peace finds intense activity. Calm and sedate he goes on discussing the problems of life and death. … Five thousand years have passed and he has influenced millions and millions … My regard for him is for his perfect sanity. wonderfully developed equally in brain and heart and hand. He knows the use of everything. warrior. and when it is necessary to assign a place to each.Vivekananda writes  “He is the most rounded man I know of.” . as well as the wisest man.” It means nothing to this man – the flying of missiles about him. either as a gentleman.

Gandhi on the Gita  “When disappointment stares me in the face and all alone I see not one ray of light.” . I owe it all to the teachings of the Gita. I find a verse here and a verse there and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming tragedies – and my life has been full of external tragedies – and if they have left no visible scar on me. I go back to the Gita.